Inches, centimeters, finger tips.
All of them mattered in the Music City Bowl on Friday night when Kentucky twice came back from 10 points down to nearly upset No. 20 Northwestern, but lost by all of the above.
UK’s two-point conversion attempt in the final seconds failed and Northwestern prevailed, 24-23, at Nissan Stadium.
“Very proud of this football team, proud of the way we fought back, competed and put ourselves in position to win this game,” UK Coach Mark Stoops said. “We came up inches short and that hurts.”
For a long time, it looked like the Music City Bowl was going to be remembered for who didn’t finish it rather than for how it actually finished.
But the finish won out.
Stephen Johnson, who came back from a shoulder injury in the first half, had two rushing touchdowns late, including the one to get UK within a point, but his pass to Tavin Richardson for two didn’t get there with 37 seconds to go.
“I’m good with it,” Stoops said of the decision to go for two in that situation. “If you ask me if I could do it over again, of course I would. You’re always going to second guess yourself when it doesn’t work.”
In a game of what-will-they-think-of-next, there was an ejection of Kentucky’s star running back and then Northwestern’s top tackler.
Northwestern (10-3) lost its starting quarterback on a trick play and Kentucky seemed to lose its starting signal caller on a late hit on the sideline.
But Johnson came back in the second half and got UK within three points in the third quarter before throwing a pick to Kyle Quiero, who scored from 26 yards out, that looked like it would end the suspense midway through the final quarter.
Before that misstep Johnson made all the right moves, guiding UK 74 yards down the field and running it in three yards for the touchdown to pull the Cats within three points, 17-14.
Johnson then helped Kentucky (7-6) score again on a nine-yard run in the final minute before the failed conversion. Johnson’s Kentucky career ended with him connecting on 19 of his 36 pass attempts for 257 yards and two interceptions with the two rushing scores.
“I know the way he competes and I know how tough he is and I know if there’s any way he can play, he will play,” Stoops said of the quarterback. “He’ll always be remembered for his toughness, his guts and his determination. Once again, he leads us and puts us in position to win this football game.”
No. 20 Northwestern, which won its eighth straight game and second straight bowl game, was paced by running back Justin Jackson, who ran for 157 yards and two touchdowns.
Jeremy Larkin added 112 yards on nine carries for Northwestern, which rushed for 333 yards. It was the third straight game that Kentucky’s defense had allowed 300-plus yards.
In its final three games of the season, UK opponents ran for 1,060 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns on 143 attempts, some 7.4 yards per carry.
In its defense, the UK defense did get several huge fourth-down stops in the loss that nearly set up the game-winner. In the second half, Kentucky held the Northwestern offense scoreless.
“We knew we had to keep on fighting and we gave ourselves the best opportunity to do that,” senior linebacker Courtney Love said.
The drama picked up in the second quarter when Northwestern lost its starting quarterback on a trick play that went horribly wrong. Clayton Thorson caught a pass from his running back near the UK end zone before an awkward tackle and landing had him exit on a cart with a leg injury.
A few minutes later, Kentucky star Benny Snell was ejected for what looked like the running back declining a hand up by an official. The sophomore had just been thrown backward for a loss of 7 yards by a herd of Northwestern defenders.
It appeared on replays that the official bent down to help up Snell, who used his hands to decline the help. The official then threw a flag that ejected the running back for putting his hands on an official.
When Snell left the game, UK was trailing 10-7. Snell had six rushes for 15 yards and a score. Without its leading rusher, the Cats managed just 65 yards on the ground.
Late in the busy — and pivotal — second quarter, Johnson went to the locker room with what appeared to be an injury to his right throwing arm.
A few seconds before the half, Northwestern’s leading tackler, Paddy Fisher, was ejected for targeting.
The Cats trailed 17-7 at the half, but Johnson came back — as Johnson has done in so many games in his two-year career — and guided UK 74 yards down the field and ran in a three-yard score to make it 17-14 Northwestern.
“Everybody was very confident that we were going to go out and win the game and give ourselves an opportunity,” Stoops said of the second-half surge. “We talked about getting our composure and executing.”
Johnson completed four straight passes on that drive, including a 37-yarder to Kayaune Ross.
For the first time this season, Kentucky began a game with a touchdown on its opening drive, opening with a 26-yard pass to Richardson quickly followed by a 37-yard pass that helped set up a three-yard score for Snell.
Richardson ended the night with a career-best 89 yards receiving.
Darius West had a game-best 11 tackles. Love added 10 tackles in the loss.